Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

The Silly Trick of Throwing Dynamite

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 5

A curious incident occurred one day about this time. Some Indians returning to the Beni district had met some women belonging to the Tipuani district and wanted to marry two of them and take them to the Beni district, but the women were unwilling and this led to a quarrel among the men. The relations of the women attacked the ten men from the Beni; they chopped one another about a bit with cutlasses and fought with hard wood sticks, while the two women and their friends tried to pacify them. Finally it was suggested that they should all go over to see the two Englishmen across the river. Mac and I were in the carpenter’s shop making sleepers when they arrived in a body. There were twenty-seven of them in all, several of the men with their heads bandaged. They told us the cause of the row, and we told them that if the women were of age they should be allowed to please themselves. If they wished to marry the two men from the Beni then they should be allowed to do so, and leave with them; if not, the Beni men had no right to make trouble over it and should cease to molest them, and continue their return journey in peace. After some talking this was agreed to, and the women were asked their wishes. They both said they did not wish to leave their own district and cared nothing at all for the two men that wanted them. Mac and I then told the men from the Beni that they were to blame for the quarrel, and we also told the others they were wrong in coming in as they did and attacking the Beni men, whose wounds were chiefly on the back of their heads which showed they had been attacked from behind. Eventually they came to an understanding, and after we had mixed up a big bottle of water with a little lysol and a little lint and dressed their heads they left with many thanks to us, and much shaking of hands among themselves. The Beni men crossed the river in the canoes belonging to the Tipuani men and took the path back to the Beni, while the others and the two women over whom the dispute had arisen returned to their homes.

A few days after this Bert Morton, an American miner, passed through the Tipuani village. I met him walking behind his three large mules on the way back to La Paz, he had been prospecting for rubber for a house in Lima, and about a month before he had blown off the half of two fingers of his right hand in doing what I call the silly trick of throwing dynamite in the river pools to get a supply of fish. One cartridge had exploded and caused the injury. Fish got this way are never much good; they don’t have the same flavour.

On the next Monday Noboa came over and told me that no natives had come yet from Challana; and that nobody from the neighbourhood cared to go in with him, as they said the Indians and half-castes in Challana were hostile, that they had guards with rifles all along the river Challana wherever you could cross by balsa, and that the river was deep and the current strong, and there was no balsa ever kept on this side. He strongly advised me not to continue the journey; and thought they would not let me cross, and if they did they might not allow me to return. Mac was of the same opinion, and said he had been here sixteen years and had never ventured into their country, but if I still insisted on going he would lend me his old mule, which I accepted with thanks. I told them that if my way was barred when I got to the river I would turn back.

The following day I got together provisions and gear for a fortnight—bread, half a challona, some plantain, eschalot, coffee, tea, salt, six tins of corned beef, three bottles of Noboa’s rum, a water-flask, my rifle and fifty cartridges, my six-shooter, cutlass and bedding—a good load for Mac’s mule.

Next day I started, with Miguel leading the mule. We crossed the river by the cable, Miguel going first with the help of the two Barbadians living opposite, then all the provisions and myself; the mule swam across behind the balsa which was paddled and propelled by the Indian. Noboa met me on the other side, and took me along to a small trail, which led to a stream; by following it he said I would come out in full view of the big River Challana. There was a nearer way, by a better trail, which I thought it better not to take, as I wanted to get to the banks of the river without meeting anyone. I felt sure that when I got there I should find an order from Villarde to let me cross over.

The path was a narrow one, overgrown below with bushes and creepers, and overhead with branches of trees which often had to be cut off to make room for the mule to pass. I was using the machete most of the time, while Miguel was resting; he had only just got over his first attack of fever. Often we took off our trousers and walked for a long way in the stream itself; it saved cutlassing, and was easier going. The forest was alive with birds of all sorts and butterflies of all colours. I got a big martinette with a pistol shot on the ground at a few yards’ range, and we saw the spoor of deer and the tracks of wild pigs. The first day we did ten miles, which was pretty good, but the first four were easy going. That night we made camp on the banks of the stream near a beautiful cool pool over five feet deep in the middle. Growing low down on some trees close to the pool were two lovely orchids of a brilliant scarlet colour, with yellow centre. One had three blossoms and the other four; they were growing together as one plant, and had five more blossoms ready to burst in a day or so. I should say this was a scarlet cattleya; in any case, it must have been a very rare specimen of orchid, because, although I saw many varieties on my journey, and often the same specimens repeated, I never came across this particular specimen again.

The next day we made six miles and camped near the stream on a stony beach, where there was plenty of grass in patches for the mule; the previous night the grass had been rather scanty. While I was bathing in a pool near, a fine swamp deer came out of the forest to the waterside; he did not seem at all scared, but stood and looked at me for quite a few minutes, which showed that human beings were scarce in these parts. I have frequently noticed vicuñas doing the same thing in some of the fastnesses of the Andes near the snow line, when I have been prospecting.

The next day was a failure, for after it had taken us about three hours to go the same number of miles, I doing all the cutlass work, we came to an enormous tree across the path with such thick, heavy-looking undergrowth on one side, and so little clear space on the other, that I decided to go back to the scarlet orchids of the night before, which we did. The next morning, while bathing, I had another look at them. Three more beautiful petals had burst, and there were now ten opened out.

After breakfast I started to open up another dim trail that could be seen nearer the river, a much narrower one than the path of the day before. It was rough hot work, hewing and chopping down bush and small trees to make way for the mule; all these paths made by the forest Indians are low and narrow. Amongst other things I saw that day were forty or fifty big coffee-coloured monkeys, which were very tame, and seemed to follow us along the trees from branch to branch. I have seen some monkeys in different parts of the world in my time, but I never came across such climbers as these. They simply walked up and down big high trees and jumped from one to the other with the most perfect ease, chattering and talking all the time till late in the afternoon, when they would disappear.